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Sunday, 29 June 2014

Chance, Fate, Luck – How the History of the World Turned on the Randomness of a Sunny Morning, 100 Years Ago

I want to take you back to just before 10 o’clock in the morning, exactly 100 years ago: 28th June 1914. What happened in the next hour affected every one of us alive today. A series of quite random incidents, chance moments, that unfolded that morning has meant that if any part of that hour had gone differently, some of us might be living in a different country, some of us might not have been born, some of us might be part of a very different family. Our world might look very different.

Because although it was an ordinary morning, 28th June 1914, it was also an extra-ordinary morning - and its anniversary  gives us the opportunity to think about chance, randomness, fate, contingency, luck: the awesome and awful reality of how our lives are bound up with forces much larger than our own individual will. The events of that hour, that morning, show us - transparently - that nothing in life is predictable, or even inevitable: we are all bound up in something larger and out of our control. We might not like this idea, but it just happens to be the case.

As 10 o’clock drew near, a royal couple arrived by train in a distant European town – Sarajevo. A town that has seen, during the 20th century, more than its share of drama, and bloodshed. Archduke Franz Ferdinand and Duchess Sophie – the William and Kate of their days  – had come to Sarajevo to open a hospital. That’s what royalty do, then and now. At the station, which was just outside the town, they got into a car and were driven into the city centre. Those were innocent times, as they still were in Dallas fifty years later, and the golden couple were driven in an open-top car: the top was rolled back in the sunshine so that the crowds could get a good view of its special occupants. So, first random factor: the weather. If it had rained that day, history would have gone in a different direction.

Amongst the crowds of excited spectators there were six dissident figures, five Serbs and one Bosnian Muslim. They were spread out along the route. Outside of Sarajevo’s Austro-Hungarian Bank, the Bosnian lost his nerve, the bomb he’d been aiming to throw remained in his bag, and the royal car passed him by as the crowds cheered. Second random factor: an emotion we all recognise, fear – and how it took over at a key moment. There’s often a gap between aggressive fantasies and murderous thoughts, and the reality of enacting them – however enraged we may feel by injustice or oppression. But sometimes the harm an individual imagines doing to another person flows into what is then enacted. What makes one person act out their aggression, but causes someone else to refrain?  (In this week’s Torah portion, why did Moses strike out at the rock, twice, and not speak to it as he’d been told to do? Numbers 20: 11). There’s  a randomness, a mystery, to how the human heart and mind works – whatever the psychologists might tell us.

It’s now 10.15 a.m. The procession of cars is passing the Sarajevo police station, and one of the Serbs, 19 years old, and with the fearlessness of youth, hurls his grenade at the Archduke’s car. But the driver sees it coming and accelerates: the grenade hits the fourth car in the procession, wounding its occupants, with shrapnel injuring several bystanders – but the Archduke’s car has sped away unscathed. European history is proceeding at its own determined pace. Third random factor that morning: missing the target. It can happen to anyone, from Wayne Rooney to England’s distraught cricketers who aim at the stumps but can’t get the opposition out to save their lives. So to speak. 

After this attack on the Archduke’s convoy, less than half an hour passes and Franz Ferdinand, a good soul, changes his itinerary and decides to go to the hospital to visit the victims of the failed assassination attempt. Fourth random factor: generosity of spirit, compassion, concern for others. History turns on this decision by the good-hearted Archduke. As Oscar Wilde once said: No good deed goes unpunished.

General Oskar Potiorek, who is in charge of the whole visit, then decides that if his Royal Highness wants to visit the hospital then he should be driven straight there, on a route that avoids the crowds in the city centre. It’s 10.45. But the General, in all the confusion, forgets to tell the driver about the proposed route so the driver takes a right turn into Franz Joseph Strasse back towards the city centre. Fifth random factor: human initiative, thinking we know what’s best in a particular situation. It can be terrifying to realize how little we know of the consequences of our actions, how little we can control the future. You turn right rather than left and your world can be turned upside down. Or someone else’s.

Meanwhile, one of the original plotters has slunk away and is sitting in a cafe – the Maxim Schiller cafe (it’s also a delicatessen) – he’s brooding on his fate and the missed opportunities. He finishes his coffee, and his cigarette, then – hearing some cheering – he steps outside to see what’s going on. Sixth random factor: Gavrilo Princip’s addiction to coffee and tobacco. He needed a fix – and had found somewhere to indulge.  And it meant – in what we nonchalantly call ‘fate’, or ‘just a stroke of luck’ – that he happens to be in the right place at the right time. Or the wrong place at the wrong time – if you are the Archduke.

Because at that moment Princip sees Franz Ferdinand’s car as it approaches, having taken the wrong turning.  Naturally, we’d never think of it as ‘the wrong turning’ if what happened next hadn’t happened. At that moment - outside Schiller’s cafe – the driver suddenly puts his foot on the brake and starts to reverse the car. Why? He doesn’t know it’s the wrong way – he’s taking the best route he knows and nobody has told him different. Seventh random factor: the mystery of why we do one thing and not another when there’s no apparent reason.

As he reverses the car – it’s a Gräf & Stift open sports car; the Double Phaeton model for those of you who are aficionados of early 20th century Austrian luxury cars, and no I hadn’t heard of the company either, though it existed up until 2001 when it was taken over by the German MAN company, a historical irony I don’t need to amplify upon – as the driver reverses the car, its engine stalls and the gears lock. Just there, outside the cafe, where Princip just happens to be. Eighth random factor: the apparent meaninglessness of why things happen when they do. Your car breaks down on the wrong day, at the wrong time, and it usually doesn’t matter that much - though you may react as if your whole well-being, your very life, depends on it. It really doesn’t. Except when it does.

Princip, a Bosnian student caught up in the nationalist cause as youngsters have been from David the Israelite shepherd to British Muslim students fighting for Isis in Syria, seizes the moment, steps forward, draws his pistol, and from around five feet fires, twice, into the car. Ninth random factor: Princip is no marksman, on another day he would have missed, but on this day his bullets find their target. Franz Ferdinand is hit in the neck, and Sophie – who instinctively covers Franz’s body with her own after the first shot, à la Jackie Kennedy – is shot in the abdomen. They both die within minutes – it’s not yet 11 o’clock.

Tenth random factor: in one hour, exactly 100 years ago, the 20th century is deflected into a pathway of crisis and revolution, death and destruction,  war after war, slaughter and desecration, holocaust and horror, barbarism and folly. We live in the wake of – the long aftermath of – that hour in Sarajevo with its series of inscrutable events unfolding randomly moment by moment, any one of which - if it had been missing from that chain of events - could have led history off into another direction.

But no: the driver took the wrong route, the car stalled outside just that cafe, and Princip managed to shoot the Archduke fatally, through the neck. And the rest of the story is in the history books, and on our TV screens, and engraved in our psyches and the deep background to our everyday lives.

The so-called ‘Great War’ saw 16 million deaths, 20 million wounded, that was ‘the war to end all wars’, they said; then just twenty years later six more bloody years of killing, still in living memory: 60 million souls perished in that War.  And the Jewish world assaulted, brutalized, traumatized, transformed – a story we know so well.

Mark Twain’s comment “Life is just one damn thing after another” comes to mind. Well, you can’t argue with that. But how things unfold, one after the other, is a source of endless speculation, endless questions, enduring mystery. Is there a pattern, is there a larger meaning? Rabbinic Judaism tries to convince us there is some higher purpose; but the Torah intuits that maybe there isn’t, it intuits that meaning is what we attribute to events - but that doesn’t mean that events do happen for some hidden reason.

This week we read from the Torah about the children of Israel reaching Kadesh: it’s the 40th year of that seemingly endless trek around the wilderness (Numbers 20:1). But we are also told they stayed at Kadesh straight after they left Egypt (cf. Deuteronomy 1:46). And here they are, 40 years later, back again in the same place. It’s Groundhog Day. No wonder they complain, bitterly, to their leaders.

Nothing new about that: the complaints started when they were barely out of Egypt. In the face of the rigours of the wilderness journey, filled with uncertainty, filled with a hope endlessly deferred, parched from lack of water, lack of sustenance, lack of meaning in their daily life,  they turn against Moses and Aaron. And in one moment, a moment of - is it frustration with this always-complaining people?  is it frustration with God’s endless demands? is it a moment of forgetting what he’s been told to do, he’s 120 years old after all and allowed a moment of forgetting, surely? is it Moses’ tiredness about the whole endless project?  or his confusion, because last time 40 years before he had been told precisely to strike the rock (Exodus 17:6)? Or is it his grief at the death of his sister Miriam, unmourned in the text, but maybe leaving Moses with pent-up feelings which now get acted out? - we will never know, we can’t know, the text withholds meaning from us; but what we see is that in one moment, Moses’ life turns. He hits the rock, twice, rather than speak to it as he’d been instructed to. It’s  a puzzle. It’s  a mystery. Why did he do it?

But once it’s done, like the driver who takes the wrong road, who reverses his car outside that one cafe where Princip happened to have retreated (if you read these events in a novel, you’d say: well, too much co-incidence, life isn’t like that; but life is just like that), like the driver whose car stalls in just that spot, and history turns on the moment, so with Moses, once it is done, and the rock is struck, his fate turns on that moment. And the Promised Land becomes something for others, but not for him.

Fateful hours, fate-filled moments - maybe they are happening all the time. Maybe the decisions we make at each moment – or fail to make – nudge history imperceptibly into new directions. What an awesome fate it is for a people to realize, even to glimpse, just how true this might be, just how much may hang on each choice, at each moment: 100 years ago or today.

[based on a sermon given at Finchley Reform Synagogue, London, June 28th 2014]













Monday, 2 June 2014

A Short Reflection on a Shavuot Paradox

Daniel Kahneman, the Israeli-born Nobel prizewinning psychologist, is the author of Thinking, Fast and Slow (2011), a book which challenges our innate belief that it is our rational or logical thinking that is determining our everyday decision making. Actually, as Kahneman shows in impressive and compelling detail, the "secret author of many of the choices and judgments” we make  is our  intuitive, associative, metaphorical, impressionistic, selves – a part of the brain that can’t be ‘switched off’.

In a famous experiment he conducted in New York (in the days before mobile phones) an accident was staged – someone dropped all her papers on the pavement – outside of a phone booth in which someone was making a call. Sometimes a single coin, a dime, (enough to make the call), had been left in the booth; and sometimes not. If there was no dime in the phone booth, only 4% of the exiting callers helped to pick up the papers. If there was a dime, no fewer than 88% helped.

Our ‘innate’ generosity, our capacity for caring for others, is not hard-wired into us. It is not even a constant in us. It comes and goes. It depends on our feeling-mood at the time. And, as we know, our feeling-moods go up and down, change all the time. This raises a large question, both psychological and spiritual: can we educate ourselves, train ourselves, to be more consistently generous, more compassionate, more considerate – i.e. not so much unconsciously at the mercy of our everyday feeling states?

Judaism offers us Torah – teachings for life, a moral/ethical vision of how to be as a people. On this fleeting summer festival we call Shavuot (Pentecost,  we celebrate this. We don’t have to make up everything anew – we are inheritors of guidelines, directions, provocations towards reflection and action.  

But this mythopoeic  vision rests on the assumption that we are totally free to consciously choose our behaviour; that following the ways-of-being, teachings and vision laid down at Sinai, or by the rabbis of the past, rests on free-will decisions we make moment by moment, season after season. But what Kahneman has taught us is that this assumption is deeply flawed. The “ secret author”/authority within us is writing us a subversive script that might well be at odds with our conscious wishes and intentions. So where does that leave ‘Israel’, as a people? And ourselves as individual Jews?

Maybe the rabbis of old intuited that things were more complex than they seemed. For, basing themselves on the Biblical narrative that shows how the patriarch Jacob’s name was changed over the course of his life to Israel, they suggested that this represents a struggle inside each human being: the struggle - that lasts a lifetime - for the ‘trickster’, the ‘heel’ in us (the root meaning of the name Ya’akov/Jacob), to be transmuted into some more refined aspect of our selves, Yisrael/Israel. Though even that name – to our glory – retains a reminder (the word can be understood as ‘the one who struggles with the divine’) that the struggle to live out the best part of ourselves is never completed. It is part of our essence.

Something to ponder as Shavuot flashes past us almost before we have time to reflect on the unsettling paradox of the human heart at the festival’s own heart.